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Math ability is inborn, study suggests

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Are you born with good math skills, or is it a product of practice? New research from Johns Hopkins University suggests it's both.

Creative and engineering types alike, listen up: some people are just better at math than others, and it's because they're born that way, according to new research.

While practice always makes perfect, researchers at Johns Hopkins University found that math ability in preschool children is strongly linked to their inborn and primitive "number sense," called an "Approximate Number System," or ANS.

Led by Melissa Libertus, the team of psychologists tested 200 four-year-old children -- this age, because it precedes formal math training -- on several tasks measuring number sense, mathematical ability and verbal ability.

During the number sense task, the researchers asked the children to view flashing groups of blue and yellow dots on a computer screen, then estimate which color group of dots was more numerous. (Counting wasn't an option; the dots were flashed quickly enough to prevent this from occurring.)

Some of the examples were obvious -- five versus 10 dots -- and others were not, such as five versus six.

The children also were given a standardized test of early mathematics ability that measured:

  • numbering skills (verbally counting items on a page)
  • number-comparison (determining which of two spoken number words is greater or lesser)
  • numeral literacy (reading Arabic numbers)
  • mastery of number facts (such as addition or multiplication)
  • calculation skills (solving written addition and subtraction problems)
  • number concepts (such as answering how many sets of 10 are in 100.)

Finally, the parents or guardians of the children were given an assessment that asked them to indicate each word on a list that their children had been heard to say. This test was to control for testing insecurity; since language and math are to some extent linked to general intelligence, the researchers wanted to isolate math ability from overall ability.

What the researchers found was that the precision of children's estimations in the first test correlated with their math skill. Therefore, inborn numerical estimation abilities are linked to achievement -- or lack thereof -- in school mathematics.

And what is "number sense," exactly? It's basic to all animals, not just human beings. Animals that hunt or gather food use it to determine where they can find and procure the most nuts, plants or game, as well as keep track of the food they hunt or gather. For humans in the modern world, it's the "sense" you use to estimate the number of empty chairs in an auditorium or M&Ms in the fishbowl at the county fair.

In a statement, Libertus had this to say about their findings:

The relationship between 'number sense' and math ability is important and intriguing because we believe that 'number sense' is universal, whereas math ability has been thought to be highly dependent on culture and language and takes many years to learn. A link between the two is surprising and raises many important questions and issues, including one of the most important ones, which is whether we can train a child's number sense with an eye to improving his future math ability.

The root cause of the link between number sense and math ability remains unknown, but their findings help provide a basis to investigate improvement -- and find the real levers behind successful STEM initiatives.

Their findings were published in the journal Developmental Science.

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Andrew Nusca

Editor Emeritus

Andrew Nusca is editor of SmartPlanet and an associate editor for ZDNet. Previously, he worked at Money, Men's Vogue and Popular Mechanics magazines. He holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and New York University. He is based in New York but resides in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure